Recent decades have brought significant progress toward a more just and equal world in areas such as poverty reduction, immunisation and life expectancy. But in some areas, change has been painfully slow.
In one such area — gender equality in education — the problem is as straightforward as it is profound: we are focusing on the wrong metric.

Of course, there is good news.
As the Unesco Global Education Monitoring (GEM) 2019 Gender Report notes, the number of illiterate adult women in upper-middle-income countries fell by 42-million from 2000 to 2016. And progress on enrolment in most countries means that richer countries increasingly face the opposite challenge — more boys than girls do not complete secondary education.

These disparities expose the limitations of the current approach, which focuses on gender parity — that is, ensuring that equal numbers of boys and girls attend school. Of course, getting girls into classrooms remains hugely important in some of the world’s poorest countries, and it can be achieved with targeted measures such as making their daily commute safer. Among the 20 countries with the largest such disparities, Guinea, Niger and Somalia stand out for their commitment to closing the gap.

But there is also a need to address the underlying causes of unequal outcomes. In low-income countries, this means assessing what happens in school and the opportunities available after completion.

In the sixth World Values Survey, carried out between 2010 and 2014 in 51 countries, half of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “when a woman works for pay, the children suffer”. The same survey found that one in four people worldwide believe that a university education is more important for a boy than for a girl.

This message is reinforced in schools. Young people study from textbooks that reinforce stereotypes and omit women’s historical contributions. And while the majority of teachers are women, school leaders are usually men.

It is probably not surprising, then, that even those girls who do receive some education are more likely to pursue traditionally “feminine” career paths, including domestic and caring professions. Women account for just over a quarter of those enrolled in engineering, manufacturing and construction, and information and communications technology programmes.

Such gendered expectations also often lead to permissive attitudes — not only socially, but also legally — toward child marriage, early pregnancy, domestic work and even sexual violence, including at school. At least 117 countries and territories still allow children to marry. Four countries in Sub-Saharan Africa prohibit girls from returning to school during or after a pregnancy. And girls in most countries are more than twice as likely as boys to be involved in child domestic work.

The world recognises the benefits of delivering education to all: the United Nations’ sustainable development goals include the target of eliminating gender disparities in education by 2030. But if those benefits are to be secured, we must acknowledge the shortcomings of an approach focused on enrolment figures. The GEM report has already adopted a new framework for monitoring gender equality in education. Countries and donors should adjust their education strategies accordingly. — © Project Syndicate

Manos Antoninis is the director of the Unesco Global Education Monitoring report